Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Guyanese Christmas

When your body clock is trained by a grey and rainy England, time seems to stand still in the tropics. There are two seasons here - sunny and rainy.  A slight difference in temperature and frequency of showers are your only cues that the year is passing, other than that it's always hot all year round, it's sweaty all year round, and the sun rises at six and sets at six all year round.  Christmas therefore comes as a shock each year, and passes without you ever really feeling like it is actually there.

Christmas in Guyana comes with it's own set of traditions.  In the run up to the big day it is all about cleaning, changing your curtains, and putting up the decorations - which include all the tinsel, santas and fake trees that we know and love back home, with the addition of plenty of big, bright fake flowers.

Next up come the office parties.  These run pretty much the same as back home; a mountain of food gets eaten, the quiet one has a few too many drinks and shows their wild side, and at some point there will be a conga line.

And then Christmas Eve. You might expect this to be a quiet time for family, church and contemplation.  It isn't.  Chrismas Eve is one of the biggest and messiest nights out of the year.  Early in the evening it is all about shopping, liming, and getting your photo taken with Santa and Elmo in front of a Hannah Montana backdrop. As the evening progresses, the street gets busier, the soundsystems get louder and louder and everybody gets drunker.  There is a seamless transition from shopping with the family to wining, drinking and discharging your home-made aerosol flamethrowers. We wind up watching a spontaneous breakdance competition on the street, backed by a soundsystem made up of a car with a laptop sat on the bonnet and a pile of speakers on the roof, and accompanied by the sounds of bottles exploding under car wheels as they unwisely try to reverse out of their spots.

By Christmas morning my house is still shaking to the bass from the bar over the road, and Main Street is a wasteland of broken bottles. Christmas day traditions are food based - Pepperpot, Black Cake, Ginger Beer, Garlic Pork, apples, grapes and walnuts. Black cake is a heavy dark fruitcake and Pepperpot is a delicious Amerindian beef stew, made from casreep, which is similar to molasses but is one of the amazing variety of foods that can be created from Cassava, a starchy root vegetable that is the staple diet for Amerindians living in the interior (explaining life in Guyana sometimes leads to a neverending chain of smaller explanations; the role of Cassava is a long post in itself).

Boxing day in Georgetown is another big party day, with the Big Main Lime bringing people and sound systems from all across Guyana.  In Berbice it is a choice between sleeping off your christmas indulgences and going to the races.  I'll follow up with a bit more on the races in a future post...

Happy new year everyone!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Pointless Guyana related lists

Clearing up half-written blog posts from a while back - here's some pointless Guyana related lists.

Noteworthy facts I was told about Berbice (my region of Guyana) before coming here:
  1. There's lots of farming
  2. It's the hippy region of Guyana
  3. There's a relatively nice beach
Noteworthy facts I wasn't told about Berbice (my region of Guyana) before coming here:
  1. It has the biggest number of mosquitos
  2. It has the most vicious mosquitos
  3. It gets the most blackouts
Most impressive types of roadkill
  1. Caiman (alligator)
  2. Plagues of frogs that have apparently fallen from the sky carpeting the road for miles
  3. Cows 
Things ants love to eat
  1. Honey
  2. Jam
  3. Flour
  4. Biscuits
  5. Bread
  6. Sink Plugs
  7. etc
Things ants won't go eat even if you leave them open on the worktop all day with a sign saying 'free and food, come and get it' and hot lady ants employed to entice passers by
  1. Marmite

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Good old days

On a roll today, one proper post, one 'this thought popped in to my head' one.  The thought?

You know when people look back to 'the good old days' - where there was no health and safety, no speed traps, you could give a child a clip around the ear, when men were men and women were women?

I live there. (Disclaimer: This is an exaggeration. Many attitudes are changing rapidly in Guyana. I would love to give VSO and similar organizations some credit for this, but probably pirated TV showing Oprah every day is what we should thank. But in essence, this is the situation.)

There is definitely another side to the rose-tinted silver-lined sepia-tinged memory.

  • No health and safety - Lots of people die and get horrifically injured at work. Lots of them. Frequently. Really badly.
  • No speed traps/traffic calming/speed bumps - Seriously, I will never complain about this again. Traffic here is deadly.  For a tiny country, the number of people being killed in road accidents is terrifying.
  • You can give a child a clip round the ear - I'll be (a little too) honest here. Corporal punishment works. Kids here are better behaved and more polite than you could hope to find in England. But, and this is a big but, they grow up learning that strength gives you the right to beat someone who doesn't agree with you. So men beat their wives, wives beat their men, parents beat their kids and sometimes their parents, and nothing gets discussed.
  • And men are men and women are women - so women are expected to cook, clean, take care of the babies, do everything to care for and treat their men, and men are expected to drink rum and come home late.  Gender equality has allowed many women to go to work now, but they still have to do all the housework, put up with infidelity and raise the children at the same time.
But some of the 'good old days' stuff is true.  People look after each other.  There is a real sense of community.  And children respect their elders.

Or at least they pretend to, for fear of licks...

Day in the life...

OK, getting back on the blogging wagon here. I'm going to change my attitude a bit to what i do here, so future posts may be a bit rough around the edges... I have decided to go for more posts, less trying to get them exactly right.

so ...

A few people have asked what exactly my work days are like here. That's a difficult question to answer - to take this week as an example, I've had:
  • a day and a half spent planning, marking and organising in the office
  • an impromptu speech to open a disability advocate for kids training
  • a day facilitating a couple of sessions (including a completely impromptu STI awareness bit complete with very graphic photographs) for a parent conference at a primary school
  • a day visiting teachers in schools
You may notice the word impromptu comes up quite a lot.  The best thing about the impromptu STI session is that I didn't even consider that this was a funny situation at the time.  Myself and another, newer volunteer were put in the position of having to give a talk about STIs, with no warning whatsoever, to thirty shell-shocked mothers, and I only realised this was out of the ordinary once my colleague pointed it out.  Guyana has made me un-surprisable.

Anyway, my day today was visiting schools.  I am working at the moment together with a Peace Corps volunteer who is mainly based in New Amsterdam Special Needs School.  Together we are running a series of workshops for primary school teachers, one from each school, looking at strategies to make schools more inclusive.  A combination of chalk-and-talk teaching, an overambitious curriculum, too many tests at a young age, and teachers with either little training, no training, or inappropriate training leads to a majority of pupils getting left behind, and leaving school with very limited basic skills. We are aiming to train one teacher in each primary school in the region with some strategies to involve more pupils. These teachers then in theory can train the other staff in their schools.  Today was a follow up visit to see a couple of those teachers in their own classrooms.

Both schools were over an hour from where I live on a minibus 'up the Corentyne' - towards the Corentyne river on the border with Suriname.  This takes you from the more urban areas of New Amsterdam and Rose Hall Town into more rural farming areas, where the main road is both a road and an area to graze cattle, dry rice, store piles of mud, and mix cement.  None of this road furniture stops the minibuses tearing along at ridiculous speeds on the wrong side of the road with Vybz Kartel blasting out of the speakers.

Both of the schools I visited today were a real breath of fresh air.  In each, the head teachers were working incredibly hard, and incredibly effectively, to make calm, structured learning environments and to give their teachers ideas to engage more pupils.  At one school, they were working to develop a Resource Centre in a building that had clearly been put up years ago with development money, but never staffed or made use of.

The teacher I saw in the next school had worked with a previous VSO volunteer, and had a wonderful attitude towards the children.  She believed, and showed through her teaching, that engaging the children positively through activities, games, stories and songs is the best way to get them to learn and behave well.  I saw a revision session where pupils were reading and answering questions together in pairs, and a phonics session punctuated by songs and silly actions. The fourty pupils, a previously struggling group with some challenging children with very disadvantaged backgrounds, were having fun and learning without realising it. And she was even using a couple of ideas from our workshops amongst plenty of her own!

I came away from today feeling terrified that we were about to run into a bull much more positive than I have for a while about the value and impact that VSO volunteers can have here.  Sometimes the challenges and obstacles, particularly at the level of policy and beauracracy, can make you wonder how big an impact we can really make. It is really heartening to see real evidence of ideas getting passed on, filtering in to everyday teaching and making a real difference.

Song of the moment: Beenie Man - I'm OK/Rum and Redbull

Postscript - therefore, please donate to VSO!  A re-adjustment of foreign aid policy has decreased their share of the British funding pie, so they do need support.  In my experience in Guyana, VSO are certainly one of the most effective organisations for helping people to help themselves without becoming dependent on outside aid.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The greatest chat up line ever?

A white gyal friend of mine, walking through the market, minding her own business, was brought out of her thoughts by the sound of loud, violent vomiting from a man she was walking past.


She turned round to see what was going on, to see a man bent double, fingers pointing into his mouth, savagely convulsing.  Once he knew he had her attention, he paused the mime to explain - "I'm just making room for some of that white meat*!"

They are now happily married.**

* There was a popular song a few years ago here called 'never had white meat'.
** Bizarrely, this is not true.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Comedy Jam

A quick post to get back on the blogging regularly wagon. (Also check out my posts on Raquel's great A to Z of Guyana).

Comedy often gives a pretty good idea of what the big issues of the minute are - watching back some old fast show episodes recently took me back to the zeitgeist of Britain in the mid to late '90s - the National Lottery, Britpop, Supermodels and Eco Warriors.  Last night I went to a touring comedy sketch show that was doing an outdoor show at the cricket pitch up the road; year-round, reliably warm outdoor events being one of the great advantages of a tropical climate.  I was glad that I hadn't been to such a show in my first few weeks here - I would have understood maybe two words - but these days I can understand the majority of what people say.  Most of the time.  The sketches did indeed give a pretty good picture of the issues of the day.  So from that evidence alone, here's a top five list of issues in Guyanese society:
  1. Sexual mores  and morality, and how these differ between Georgetown and the countryside: this sketch involved a promiscuous, sophisticated girl living in Georgetown, ashamed of her farming roots, teaching her religious, virginial cousin the ways of dating, Georgetown style. Which turn out to involve men in dresses, a new man every week, and large sums of money changing hands.
  2. Auntie Men - Like the UK in the days of Carry On and Are You Being Served, (and, it could be argued, Little Britain) there is a great divide between the prevailing attitude to homosexuality in real life (wrong, disgusting, sinful and peverted) and the reaction to gay people on stage (hilarious and wonderful). This show did have some strong (and well recieved) gay characters, which could be a sign of new attitudes gaining a foothold.
  3. Corrupt traffic policemen -
    'How are we going to get paid today?'
    'We need to start charging people for ADT.'
    'What's that?'
    'Any Damn Thing!'
  4. Domestic Violence - in this case a skit about a woman falsely claiming to have been beaten by her husband, who has clearly been battered by her to a pulp. Of course the female magistrate sentences the hapless man to life in prison.
  5. Beauty Pageants - actually, this wasn't a sketch, just a bizarre and slightly disturbing part of the intermission. But beauty contests crop up everywhere, most bizarrely in my experience as part of the government run Amerindian Heritage Month celebrations. The contestants last night, the youngest of whom was about 10, came on stage to prove once and for all that there is no good answer to the question 'why should you win this beauty pageant?'. And further proving that if there is, 'because i'm smart, intelligent and intellectual' isn't it.  This spectacle contrasted sharply with the genuinely smart and talented actresses involved in the show.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Soca Junkie - Music of Guyana, Part 1

First, an overdue correction: the ‘amusingly bad grammar’ in the sign in a previous post – ‘water is life, care it’ isn’t bad grammar at all. It’s just Creolese grammar, like ‘I tell she’, ‘me na know’, ‘walk with your things’. Lesson learnt, for the fiftieth time, until I forget again: Don’t be too quick to judge.

And now to the matter at hand. I had to do a music post sooner or later. More will follow.
Music has been one of the defining elements of my experience so far, and the sounds of Guyana will linger in my ears long after I have left the country. And when I get home my friends will wonder what the hell has happened to my music taste.

The title is a bit of a misnomer: most of the music you hear here is not from Guyana. There are a few local bands and singers, but even they apparently tend to record in Trinidad or Suriname. The vast majority of music is imported from elsewhere, mainly Trinidad, Jamaica, the USA or Brazil. And when I say imported, I mean downloaded as a low bitrate MP3 and burnt to a CD. There are either no copyright laws here, or nobody has bothered trying to enforce any, so even the biggest department stores sell nothing but pirated CDs and DVDs. These are ridiculously cheap – you can usually get between five and ten CDs for 1000 Guyanese Dollars (About £2.50), although luxuries like the CDs coming with accurate tracklistings or actually playing all the way through are far from guaranteed.

Music is everywhere here, and it’s loud. Whether it’s reggae blasting out of the minibus, eighties ballads in the taxi, Chutney* blasting out from your neighbour’s house at 6 AM or dirty thumping dancehall played in between overs at a cricket game, there is almost always some kind of music within earshot. There are some noise laws, but the application of these is very hit and miss. Generally 'hit' when i'm in the middle of dancing and the club gets shut down at midnight, and 'miss' when i'm trying to sleep at five in the morning.

The most popular songs are bought by everybody, and played by everybody, repeatedly, for months. For the first few months here, One More Night and Nightshift by Busy Signal would be heard about ten times each a day. It’s just once or twice a day now. I have been through a similar 'three stages of culture shock' experience with these songs as I did with blackouts - enjoying them, then being driven to the edge of Insanity (a village on the way to Georgetown**) by them, and then eventually coming to tolerate and even like them, and freely choosing to listen to them at home from time to time.

As for going out and dancing***, the DJing culture here was a bit of a shock when I arrived, and one of the things I thought it might be hardest to adjust to. DJs usually play the start of the song, till it kicks in, have the MC shout a bit, rewind, sing over it, rewind when it gets to the good bit again, and then skip to the next song. Then they play the start of the song, till it kicks in, the MC shouts a bit, they restart the song, sing over it, rewind when it gets to the good bit again, and then skip on to the next song. Then they . . . well you get the idea. When I first went out this irritated the life out of me. But after a while you begin to see how it works with the music and the way people dance here. Hearing full songs all the way through sounds a bit boring now.

One good thing is the variety you get in each club over the space of a night. Most places will play the full range of Dancehall, Soca, Culture and a bit of RnB and classic dancefloor tunes as a bonus. The bad side is that there’s not much choice between venues – apart from some places that play more sludgy eighties ballads or Chutney, most places have identical playlists. There are probably at least twenty songs you can pretty much guarantee hearing wherever you go.

Next music post: a rundown of popular Guyanese**** musical styles. With examples. Lucky you. It must be nearly Christmas.

Mr Dale - Soca Junkie

* Indian music crossed with soca, we'll deal with this at a later date...
** Not actually true. But it could be. There is one called 'Good Faith'. I plan to go there and do something horribly selfish and short sighted. In good faith. Do you see? But I never got round to going to Glasshouses (near Harrogate) and throwing stones, and I lived near there for five years, so chances are I won't actually get round to it. And it's a bit of a silly idea really.
*** The dancing culture is quite a shock too, but one for another post.
**** Not really Guyanese. See above.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

CSI Georgetown

This is, within the limits of my hazy heat addled memory, the precise conversation me and a couple of friends had with a taxi driver recently.  None of us had met this guy before.

“Good morning”
    “Maarnin.  Where you go?”
    “Sure thing.”
Driver looks in the mirror and clocks my friend.
    “Hey bai, I saw you yesterday.”
“Oh yeah, where did you see me?”
    “Getting off a minibus on Vlissingen”
“That’s right, I was.”
    “It was a no. 63 bus, You musta come from Berbice.”
“That’s right.”
    “You was wearing a red shirt.”
    “And grey three quarters.”
“That’s true.”
    “And slippers”. (ie. Flip flops/thongs)
“Right again.”
    “And you had a big blue bag.”
“Erm, yes, that’s also true.”
    “You get on the corner by the gas station, look around, walk back up the road and cross over the bridge.”
“OK, I’m slightly scared now.  Do you know what I had for lunch yesterday too?”
    “Na bai, na.  But I could find out!  Check when you next go the toilet. All that CSI shit, forensics, you know?”
“CSI Georgetown?”
    “Exactly, CSI Georgetown.  That’s me.  CSI Georgetown.”

Monday, 4 January 2010

Toucan play at that game...

Every morning, at the same time, the parrots flew past the building site into the forest to hunt.  You can easily spot parrots because they always fly together in pairs.  Each afternoon, they flew back home.  Every day at the same time.  The workers started their jobs when the parrots went past on their way into the forest, and stopped when they were seen returning.

One afternoon the parrots were nowhere to be seen. The workers were vexed. They complained it was time to go home, but the boss just said 'Parrots na fly, you na go". They worked and worked until the sun went down.

The next day started as usual, but after half an hour the parrots were spotted on the horizon coming back from the jungle. The boss tried to stop them, but the workers just left. "Parrots fly, we go."

By the following morning, the boss had bought himself a watch.

(Thanks to Leonard for the story, and apologies to the world for the pun)